Publish date:

Best shooting in a decade for landbound quarry


Ever since the end of the 1960 hunting season a team of naturalists from the conservation-minded Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation has been making an extensive study of the condition of U.S. game. In cooperation with state game departments, winter surveys, spring counts and brood-survival studies were made in all parts of the country. Below, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents the results of this unique survey, which provides a comprehensive report for hunters on the various game species they will pursue during the coming fall.

Big game

Traditionally the nation's most popular big-game animal, the deer has hit an alltime population peak this season. White-tail, mule and blacktail deer are reported in greater abundance than ever before; and hunters with bows, rifles and shotguns are expected to harvest almost two million head. Of 48 states with open seasons, 32 report increases over 1960's bulging herds; 13 estimate herds to be as plentiful as last year, and only three—California, Nevada and Connecticut—report slight decreases. Best bets for deer hunters are Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

As in seasons past, the majority of sportsmen taking bears this fall will do so while pursuing other big game. Hunters specifically seeking bear, however, will find record crops in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado and Oregon where late counts indicate healthy increases over last season. Alaska also reports its brown-and polar-bear populations are in excellent condition with state-wide harvests expected to equal those of a year ago. Other states with bear populations comparable to last year's are Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Only 50 years ago antelope were dangerously close to extinction—total in U.S. herds was less than 30,000. Today, thanks to concentrated efforts on the part of conservationists to improve breeding and habitat conditions, the pronghorn ranks second only to deer among the nation's most numerous big-game animals, and its amazing comeback is reflected throughout its range in long, fruitful hunting seasons. In Wyoming alone present herds are estimated in excess of 120,000. Peak populations are also reported this year from Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico. Antelope crops in Texas, Colorado, Utah and Oregon are comparable to last year's abundant ones, and only Idaho and Nevada report populations down slightly.

One of the continent's most desirable trophies because of its impressive antlers and tender meat, the elk, or American wapiti, lures thousands of out-of-state hunters into its range each fall. Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and Arizona indicate herds this season are even bigger than a year ago. Idaho and Montana, the country's top elk hunting states, report populations at alltime highs. Wyoming and Utah have the same size herds as last year, while Nevada expects a somewhat smaller elk crop.

Prospects for mountain goat in Montana and Alaska are excellent, while Washington and Idaho anticipate bigger goat herds than in many seasons. Mountain sheep continue to hold their own in the West, with sound, healthy herds in Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. New Mexico again reports increases of Barbary sheep among herds introduced in that state less than 10 years ago. Moose in Wyoming and Utah are steady, with Montana's herds doing well, especially in wilderness areas. Alaska also reports increases in its moose herds, with many record-class trophies still to be taken by hunters. Herds of barren-ground caribou in the 49th state also show gains. Walrus and bison populations remain at last year's levels. Javelina continue to multiply in Texas, where populations are now reported well over 100,000, with an expected harvest this season of 5,000. Wild boar are maintaining good levels in Tennessee, North Carolina and Hawaii. The latter state also reports feral goat herds are good.

Small game

More cottontail rabbits are taken than any other game species in the U.S. Last year, despite heavy pressure, rabbits attained what was thought to be an unsurpassable peak in numbers, but to the delight of some 12 million hunters, this season's crop is expected to run even higher. A total of 28 states reports increases, with strongest populations in the southwest and central U.S. Thirteen states expect at least as many rabbits as they had in 1960. Only three states—Texas, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—anticipate fewer cottontails this season than last. Among the other species, snowshoe hares and western jack rabbits are also up over last year throughout their range. Many states are allowing a year-round open season for hunting rabbits.

The squirrel crop, second only to rabbit in the number of small-game animals taken annually, will be about the same as 1960. The only significant changes this season are in the lake states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana—and in a number of central states—Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky-squirrel populations are expected to. exceed those of a year ago. Alabama, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico and Vermont also report moderate increases over last season. Populations are the same in 22 states while somewhat reduced crops are predicted in Tennessee, Rhode Island and Connecticut, where the winter was particularly cold, with heavy snows lasting well into spring.

Upland game

This will be a bumper fall for pheasants, particularly in the lake and the plains states and on the West Coast. A solid block of states, including Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Wisconsin report ringnecks at a record high, with the nationwide harvest this fall expected to exceed 7 million. On the West Coast—California, Oregon and Washington—where a series of droughts had previously reduced pheasant populations, the outlook has improved and good gunning is again expected in this region. Texas and Hawaii also report pheasant increases. In the East, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia report ringnecks are generally as abundant as last year, with population rises predicted in Delaware and New Hampshire offset by slight declines in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Even in New York, which last winter suffered its heaviest snows in 80 years, local reports indicate large hatches of birds, with a high percentage of young surviving to maturity.

The best quail gunning in a decade is expected in the southeast and central states. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida all produced record quail crops last year, and this year's counts indicate that 1961 's populations are even higher. "If the increase continues unchecked," says one Georgia plantation owner, "disease and lack of food may become serious problems. As it is, we now have more birds than we can control." Elsewhere, light snow and good weather during spring nesting periods contributed to recoveries in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio, where breeding stock suffered major setbacks during the severe winter of 1959-60. Increases are also predicted in Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. Eighteen states report quail populations this season are at least as good as last year's, and only four—Nevada, Arizona, West Virginia and New Jersey—expect somewhat fewer birds.

A 7- to 10-year propagation cycle among ruffed grouse is expected to reach its height this season. New England, New York, Pennsylvania, the lake states, Washington and Oregon anticipate the best hunting in 10 years. Seventeen states report increased populations, with 11 anticipating at least as many birds as last year. Dusky, sage and sharp-tailed grouse populations are also good throughout their range. Nevada and New Mexico expect slight decreases in over-all grouse crops, while severe weather in New Hampshire and Connecticut were responsible for declines in these states.

Fifty years ago the wild turkey, like the antelope, was close to extinction. Heavy logging and lumbering operations west of the Rio Grande and widespread trapping, snaring and poaching in the Southeast nearly eliminated the bird from its entire range. In less than 50 years, however, careful habitat control, protection of breeding birds and strict enforcement of hunting laws have restored the turkey as a major game bird. This year Eastern wild turkeys, along with growing flocks of the Merriams, the important species in the West, will be hunted in 23 states, with an expected harvest of 100,000 birds. Best hunting prospects are in the South, where major gains arc reported in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. Populations in Texas are steady, and up elsewhere in the West. Optimistic reports also come from the East, where Vermont's flocks show gains.

Among the game birds introduced to the U.S. in the past three decades, the chukar partridge is easily the most successful import. Challenging to hunt and good to eat, the chukar flourishes in dry, rocky terrain where most other game birds cannot survive. In Nevada hunters have taken over 30,000 in a season—all descendants of 5,000 birds stocked experimentally in the '30s and '40s. More recent plantings in Colorado, Washington and Hawaii continue to gain. Idaho and Montana have good chukar crops this season. Throughout the bird's expanding range only California expects somewhat fewer chukars than last year.

North Dakota's mild winter and relatively light snowfall contributed to an enormous crop of Hungarian partridge, partial balm for that state's poor duck hunting prospects. Equally good reports on Hungarian partridge come from Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin, where the birds have maintained their excellent 1960 levels. Prairie chicken forecasts from New Mexico and Oklahoma are also optimistic.